Live: Portishead at the Shrine Expo Center
Space was a bountiful commodity for Portishead at the Shrine Expo Center in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night. The group understands the word in its many forms, both inner and outer: the kind that takes on the role of silence when sound is involved; the kind such as that at the cavernous Shrine Expo Center, the perfect venue to focus on echo and depth; and that which is up in the sky and filled with stars.
Portishead, returning as part of its first American tour in a decade (though the band did a massive, career-defining Coachella performance in 2008), rose out of Bristol, England, in the '90s and broke through with a unique blend of instrumental hip-hop, Jamaican dub and deep '60s and '70s soul music that spawned the hits "Sour Times," "Glory Box" and "Cowboys," all of which were performed Tuesday.
The three-piece group features producer-DJ-percussionist Geoff Barrow, guitarist Adrian Utley and vocalist Beth Gibbons. At the Expo, the band was augmented by a guitarist, a drummer and a keyboard player, who filled the 54,000-square-foot room -- one gigantic, 21,000-square-foot dance floor and a balcony overlooking it -- with tense, minimal electronic and electric music.
Portishead went into hibernation for much of the '00s before a somewhat improbable return with its best record, “Third,” in 2008. Improbable, because by then, the '90s movement with which the band was most associated, trip-hop, had gone from fresh and innovative to fetishized and nostalgic. In the decade that Portishead slept, its contemporaries in the Bristol scene, such as Massive Attack and Tricky, continued to release records and proceeded to paint themselves into aesthetic corners.
Meanwhile, Barrow and company traveled in a magnetic new direction for "Third," one that wed the rumbling basslines of their early work with retro-futurist analog tones of the '60s and '70s, when synthesizers were celebrating space (as in the Final Frontier) and exploring the early sounds of the Computer Age.
On Tuesday, it was these newer songs that held up the best. Though there's little to defend oneself against Gibbons' sorrowful soprano on "Sour Times" or her pinched, softened lament on "Wandering Star," both from Portishead's 1994 debut album, "Dummy," the early songs sometimes felt thin, as though Gibbons had long since lost touch with their original emotion; "Sour Times," especially, seemed rushed, like they couldn't wait to move on.
It was the right reflex: With the next song, "Magic Doors," the weird cowbell-augmented breakbeat gem from "Third," Portishead hit its peak. And the performance of its most recent recording, a one-off single called "Chase the Tear," was an autobahn cruise of Steve Reichian repetition, hookless and insistent; while Gibbons offered moans, Barrow kicked out a repetitive rhythm and Utley poked and jabbed at his strings during a weird quasi-solo so minimal that the notes barely felt connected.
And then, in the middle, came the space: The beat dropped, Utley let his guitar rest, Gibbons stayed silent and for four absolutely noiseless, John Cage-ian bars, the music stopped and the room's acoustics echoed with the last remnants of the soundwaves. Where once was noise was now silence, and it felt monolithic.
A moment later, on the other side of the aural canyon, the beat and the drone returned, stronger and more pressing, and continued over and over again ad infinitum. Somewhere in the deepest crevices of the Shrine, that beat's no doubt still reverberating, albeit minutely, through the floorboards and into the foundation, burrowing its way into the earth below.
-- Randall Roberts
Updated, Oct. 20: An earlier version of this post said that Portishead performed at the Hollywood Palladium in 2010. They did not, in fact, perform in Los Angeles in 2010. We have adjusted the text accordingly.
Photo: Vocalist Beth Gibbons fronts Portishead during a performance at the Shrine Expo Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times